Sunday, May 6, 2012

Reflections on the 2012 Kentucky Derby

Featuring one of the best fields in years, the 138th Kentucky Derby (GI) was full of top-class racehorses. Seven of the horses ranked in my Derby Top Ten finished in the top half of the twenty-horse field, further stamping those entered in the race as a solid field. When it came down to it, though, it was I’ll Have Another that stood beneath the Twin Spires with a garland of red roses draped over his withers.

I’ll Have Another and several other Derby contenders will continue on to the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes (GI) at Pimlico Racecourse. Other Derby competitors are being pointed toward the twelve-furlong Belmont Stakes (GI) in New York. Of course, the Kentucky Derby victor will look to extend his winning streak to continue his Triple Crown journey with hopes of becoming the first winner of the elusive title in over thirty years. However, he will have to face several of the very gifted horses he competed against in the Derby.

A look at the honorable top eight finishers of the Kentucky Derby:

First – I’ll Have Another: The chestnut colt broke extremely well from gate nineteen before young rider Mario Gutierrez guided him closer to the inside, finding a clear path as he allowed I’ll Have Another to gallop approximately three-wide around the clubhouse turn. His beautiful, lengthy stride carried him into seventh around the first curve before the colt found himself moving forward along the backstretch, relaxing perfectly in between horses with plenty of room to run as Bodemeister set blistering fractions. Traveling a bit wide around the final turn, I’ll Have Another loomed large while Bodemeister opened up on the field. Whereas the tough Bodemeister was gradually weakening, I’ll Have Another was growing stronger. Impressively, I’ll Have Another powered past Bodemeister to take the Derby by 1 ½ lengths. Notably, he was never passed in the gallop out.

I’ll Have Another had a perfect trip and the blazing pace allowed him to move in quickly on the leaders. Perhaps the race set up for him, but it must be noted that, in his past two races, he was able to close into steady, much slower fractions and still pull off a victory.

As for I’ll Have Another’s chances at the Triple Crown, he will have difficulty against the brilliant three-year-olds in this group, including several of the honorable finishers in the Derby. He’ll likely also face talented, fresher horses that did not contest in the Kentucky Derby. However, he was very impressive in his Run for the Roses victory and is a relatively fresh horse himself.

In addition, I’ll Have Another has breeding worthy of Triple Crown distances. Obviously, he is capable of getting ten furlongs, but he should also be able to go even farther. His sire is Flower Alley, a Travers Stakes (GI, 10F) winner, and his dam is a daughter of Arch, who is also the sire of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI, 10F)-winning Blame. Also, I’ll Have Another possesses beautiful movement that will carry him over a route of ground, as he covers much ground with his long, effortless strides. It is also very encouraging that he is headed to Pimlico early, which means he will have time to adapt to the Baltimore track.

Second – Bodemeister: Sent off as the favorite, Bodemeister broke like a rocket and went straight to the lead, finding a position along the rail as the horses rounded the initial curve. On the backstretch, Mike Smith guided the colt a few paths off the rail, allowing him to take a clear lead over the sprinter Trinniberg. Bodemeister set a blazing first quarter of 22.32 seconds, then a half-mile in a breathtaking 45.39, a stunning six furlongs in 1:09.80, and a mile in 1:35.19 – ridiculous times for a mile and one-quarter. The fractions he set were the fifth fastest in the one hundred thirty-eight editions of the Kentucky Derby. Around the far turn, the race appeared to be his despite the blistering fractions. As the horses entered the homestretch, Bodemeister was ahead of the rest of the field by several lengths. However, the toll of his scorching fractions caught up with him and he was passed by I’ll Have Another in the final strides. Nonetheless, Bodemeister turned in an absolutely monstrous performance, proving that he is a tremendously brilliant colt. Some have speculated that, if Trinniberg had not been entered in the Derby, perhaps the colt would have won. Yet he was never really pressured by Trinniberg much. But he should receive much praise for his spectacular run in the Derby, which he has.

Should he run in the Preakness, Bodemeister could very well be favored. He has never finished worse than second and in his past two starts, he has turned in very freakish performances, including a 9 ½-length victory in the Arkansas Derby (GI). However, the colt has had three very tough races in just eight weeks. He only had three weeks after his dominant Arkansas Derby (GI) victory and, of course, ran the race of his life in the Kentucky Derby (GI). A start in the Preakness Stakes (GI) just two weeks after his amazing performance would surely be grueling, especially since the colt only began his racing career in January. However, he is certainly one of the most gifted three-year-old colts in the group and ran an absolutely incredible race in the Derby. He has never run a bad race in his life and it is unlikely that he will.

Bodemeister also possesses a pedigree that will support him in Triple Crown races. Sired by the Belmont Stakes (GI, 12F)-winning son of Kentucky Derby (GI) and Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) winner Unbridled, Empire Maker, and out of a graded stakes-winning Storm Cat mare, Bodemeister should continue to love long distances. He’ll need to learn to settle a bit better, but this colt is absolutely brilliant and we could be in store for great things from him in the near future.

Third – Dullahan: At the start, Dullahan came over on second-choice Union Rags, finding his groove in mid-pack as Kent Desormeaux let the colt run in the middle of the pack, several lengths off the lead as the field rounded the first turn. He had plenty of room in front of him as the twenty horses continued down the backstretch and as the field entered the turn, Desormeaux began to ask him for more. He was forced to swing very wide around the turn and loomed large on the outside as the horses neared the wire. He covered much ground and got caught in a photo finish with Bodemeister at the wire, finishing third.
Photo: Terri Cage

Dullahan is still winless on dirt, but he has performed very well on it. Perhaps he had too much ground to make up, but he simply did not have a big enough kick to get the job done. Nevertheless, he ran a notable race and will be a serious sophomore contender throughout the year.

As a half-brother to Mine That Bird, Dullahan is clearly bred for classic distances. His sire, Even the Score, though not as stamina-influencing as Mine That Bird’s sire, has sired the ten-furlong grade one winner Take the Points. Furthermore, Dullahan showed in the Derby that he could have kept going.

Fourth – Went the Day Well: Running for the same connections as Animal Kingdom, winner of the 2011 Kentucky Derby, Went the Day Well finished better than perhaps any other horse in the 2012 Run for the Roses. Leaving the gate from post thirteen, Went the Day Well exited the starting gate decently, finding a position near the back of the pack as the horses raced through the first turn, on which he was forced to check slightly.  Galloping far off the leaders down the homestretch, Went the Day Well found room to rally beneath John Velazquez around the far turn and was guided to the outside before closing rapidly in the homestretch. With ground-eating strides, he grew closer to the leaders but just could not get there in time. He had a tremendous gallop out, catching up to I’ll Have Another but never passing him.

On a track that was mostly favoring speed, Went the Day Well made a tremendous run. Of course, the quick pace may have set him up for a spectacular rally, but the bias of the track played against him. Despite that, Went the Day Well closed terrifically, making up much ground. I timed him in 25 seconds flat for his final quarter mile, as compared to I’ll Have Another 25.7-second final quarter.

On a road of improvement, Went the Day Well is by Kentucky Derby runner-up and Preakness third-place finisher, who sired this year’s winner of the Kentucky Oaks, Believe You Can, as well as the 2008 victor of the Lilies for the Fillies, Proud Spell. As a grandson of the two-time ten-furlong Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning Tiznow, a direct descendant of both a daughter of the stamina-influencing Majestic Light and an Irish Oaks winner, Went the Day Well is bred for routing. Moreover, his incredible rally in the Derby proved that he will relish a route of ground.

Fifth – Creative Cause: Following a good break from the eighth slot, Creative Cause found a good position in mid-pack. Around the clubhouse turn, Creative Cause ran in the three-path. He raced widest of all down the backstretch, but he had dead aim on the leaders. He began to make up ground as the field entered the far turn, continuing to race wide as he gained ground on the leaders. The closest he ever came to the lead was third and flattened out in late stretch, but was beaten just three lengths.

Creative Cause had an eventful week leading up to the Derby, beginning with his loss of a shoe when he arrived at Churchill Downs. He also missed a day of training, but despite these troubles, the gray colt finished a good fifth. He didn’t show his usual kick, but he did, as usual, run well.

As a result of the mating between Giant’s Causeway and a grade one-winning daughter of Skywalker, Creative Cause is bred for distance. Though he did not show fatigue in the stretch of the Derby, he didn’t have much of a kick in the final furlong. He is still among the top horses in this crop, however, and could be a force in the three-year-old ranks.

Sixth – Liasion: Breaking on the very outside, Martin Garcia guided Liaison closer to the rail in the early stages, but was still forced among the widest of all around the clubhouse turn. He relaxed mid-pack, staying on the outside down the backstretch. Garcia began urging him strongly as the field entered the far turn and rather than dropping back like his odds suggested he would, the son of Indian Charlie stayed in position and held off Union Rags’ rally to finish seventh.

Liaison ran a rather flat race, but he certainly ran better than his odds implied he would. Though his sire, Indian Charlie, does not give him many stamina implications, his damsire, the Belmont Stakes-winning Victory Gallop, and the sire of his second dam, A.P. Indy, do. This is a talented colt, but he needs to regain his confidence.

Seventh – Union Rags: I still feel as if Union Rags is amongst the most brilliant of this crop of three-year-olds. Unfortunately, however, he has been plagued with bad luck. His post position and break from the gate was his undoing in the Derby. Springing from the fourth gate, Union Rags was squeezed between Take Charge Indy and Dullahan at the break. It was all downhill from there. He was forced to check immediately and rather than finding what was expected to be a stalking position, Union Rags was just ahead of two other horses going into the first turn. He never seemed to find his momentum down the backstretch, but as the field entered the far turn, he seemed to be making a move. However, a fading Daddy Long Legs forced Julien Leparoux to check him and suddenly swing him off the rail. He lost serious momentum in that incident, but the blaze-faced colt accelerated anyways and as the field entered the stretch, his long strides traveled over the track impressively, allowing him to cover much ground and just miss finishing sixth. I clocked his final quarter in 25.3 seconds, which means he was among the fastest finishers and completed the last quarter more quickly than the winner.

Union Rags ran extremely well despite the large amount of trouble he encountered. Interestingly, his two losses prior to this race also came with trouble. He seems to be the type of horse who needs a perfect trip in order to win, as he does not have immediate acceleration and cannot have his momentum impeded. However, Union Rags did overcome issues in the Champagne Stakes (GI) at Belmont Park as a juvenile and still prevailed.

Many may doubt his pedigree as far as distance is concerned, but as a grandson of Gone West, his damsire is the sire of the grade one-winning distance horses Came Home, Commendable, Johar, and Marsh Side. Besides, he was not going in the wrong direction at the end of the Derby; he was closing in on the leaders, though he could not get there in time. But we have not seen all of Union Rags. Just because his finish in the Derby was disappointing does not mean this colt is not among those at the pinnacle of this group of three-year-olds.

Eighth – Rousing Sermon: After a clean break from the seventh gate, Rousing Sermon found a position near the back of the pack as the twenty-horse field rounded the first turn. He swung to the outside, galloping two-wide down the backstretch as he made up ground as the horses grew closer to entering the final turn. With a move along the rail, Rousing Sermon faced a wall of horses on the curve, but was able to get around them and final a position on the rail. He made a good rally to finish eighth and gallop out well, definitely outrunning his odds and pedigree.

Rousing Sermon is sired by a sprinting son of Pulpit and out of a mare who never won farther than a mile and one-sixteenth. However, the blazing pace set him up well, allowing him to close well for an eighth-place finish. The colt impressed me in his final work for the Derby and I feel as if he is one of most underrated colts in this crop.

Saturday’s Kentucky Derby firmly endorsed how strong this crop of three-year-olds is. I’ll Have Another has a tough task ahead of him as the final two legs of the Triple Crown loom, but he is clearly talented and a plethora of racing fans will surely cheer him on with hopes of witnessing the first victor of the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. The other three-year-olds, however, are out for revenge and with their competitiveness and talent, I’ll Have Another has his hands full. This strong crop of three-year-olds should make for an exciting Triple Crown and three-year-old season. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent recapping of one of the most surprising (and yes, disappointing) Derbies in the past several years.
    I agree 100% about Union Rags -- while I could question his ability to "make his own trip", the colt certainly has the talent to improve off this race. Contrary to the assumptions sprung by this race, I believe that early in a horse's 3 year old year is no time to be building bases on the horse's ability to overcome trouble.
    Sure, he ran green, but some horses just take longer to get the hang of things.
    This is a fine colt, perhaps the best of this crop, and I remain with my initial mantra.
    Riches for Rags!
    May the odds be in his favor.